Potential. It’s all the rage during draft season. Every team’s fanbase wants to believe the most recent additions to their squad can grow into something great. But more than your typical lot of draft picks, it feels next to impossible to discuss this San Francisco 49ers draft class without potential dominating the conversation, and South Carolina running back Mike Davis is no exception.
If you’ve done your homework, you know that there were two different versions of Davis at South Carolina: the versatile, nimble power back from 2013 who appeared poised to join Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon at the top of this year’s running back class, and the heavy-footed, out-of-shape back from 2014 who barely managed to crack 4.0 yards per carry over his final six college games. Mike Davis: 2013 Edition is a starting NFL ballcarrier; Mike Davis: 2014 Edition is fighting to get carries.
Let’s roll the tape and see if we can gain a better understanding of what made Davis so effective in 2013, along with where things might’ve gone wrong a year ago.
Where He Wins
Davis’s running style is an excellent fit for the gap-scheme running game that the 49ers have favored in recent seasons. He does an excellent job making subtle moves in the backfield to set up his blocks, and is always looking to get north-south for positive yardage. To steal a term from Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, there’s a lot of wiggle in the way Davis runs, and that’s a good thing. Combined with solid burst and acceleration, Davis utilizes that wiggle to evade defenders breaking into the backfield, to squeeze through creases at the line of scrimmage, and to split defenders at the second level.
Some of the most impressive runs that Davis had weren’t the long runs you find in highlight videos, but the plays in which he makes two defenders miss in the backfield, keeps his balance, and manages to gain five yards on a play that should’ve been a loss. The more subtle cuts show up in the open field as well, and Davis pairs those with a nasty spin move that he’ll throw in on occasion (see: the first play in the video above).
I don’t think you’ll see Davis breaking tackles in the same way someone like Marshawn Lynch does, but he’s a powerful runner that is consistently moving the pile forward and fighting for additional yardage after contact. The examples of him running through a defender to tack on an extra three or four yards are numerous, but my favorite plays showcasing Davis’s power come at the 0:07 and 1:08 marks in the video above.
In the first play, from South Carolina’s game against Georgia in 2013, Davis receives the pitch on the speed option near the goal line and finds about four Bulldogs defenders between him and the end zone with practically zero blocking help. Rather than make a beeline to the front pylon, Davis plants his foot in the ground and explodes through the mass of bodies for the touchdown.
The second play comes from the Mississippi State game later in the year, and in my mind is one of the defining Mike Davis runs. Davis takes the handoff, makes two quick cuts in the backfield to setup his blocks, bursts through the hole, and finishes the run by dragging a pile of white jerseys five yards. Nothing flashy, and it’s not showing up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays, but the run encapsulates many of Davis’s best traits.
It might not be immediately apparent given his frame and running style, but Davis is a skilled receiver. He saw a good amount of action catching passes out of the backfield in Steve Spurrier’s offense, totaling 66 receptions in his final two collegiate seasons. Davis is a natural pass catcher, and even showed the ability to make adjustments to inaccurate throws — the reception down the sideline at the 0:51 mark in the video above immediately jumps to mind. You won’t see him lining up in the slot Reggie Bush-style any time soon, but he should contribute in the screen game and as a check-down option in the flat or middle of the field.
Where He Needs To Improve
The most apparent area of Davis’s game that could use work is pass protection. This should come as no surprise — every college running back transitioning to the NFL needs to get better here. Fortunately for the 49ers, Davis is a willing blocker and appears committed to making pass protection an element of his game worth taking pride in. There are some technique issues that will need to be cleaned up, particularly with his cut blocks, and Davis will, of course, need to become intimately familiar with San Francisco’s protection schemes. But there’s nothing that leads me to believe he won’t become a quality pass protector as long as he puts the work in.
That said, putting the work in might be the biggest concern for Davis as he enters the NFL. His Rotoworld page is littered with reports of being out of shape during his final season at South Carolina, and even as recently as the Combine. Davis’s poor conditioning showed up on his 2014 tape, where he appeared to have lost some of the quickness that made him so effective during his sophomore season. He looked incredibly slow at times in the Clemson game late in the season — the Tigers fielded the NCAA’s best defense with several NFL prospects in their front seven — which wasn’t a good sign for his prospects against speedy NFL defenses. I won’t pretend to know what sort of work ethic Davis possesses, but how much time he invests in maintaining his conditioning might be the biggest determinant for his success at the next level.
The Bottom Line
Davis has shown the skill set to be a starting caliber running back at the professional level, and was well worth the risk with the No. 126 overall selection. Carlos Hyde should still be considered the frontrunner to lead the team in carries in 2015, but at his best Davis has the ability to push Hyde for touches and could easily leapfrog Kendall Hunter and Reggie Bush on the depth chart.
Conditioning will be the biggest thing to monitor through the preseason. If Davis struggles getting into shape, he’s unlikely to do much of anything as a rookie. But if he can resemble something more along the lines of the 2013 version, Davis can combine with Hyde to give the 49ers a quality 1–2 punch in a post-Frank Gore backfield.